Post-Conflict Construction of Memory and Heritage: Studying the Maya Caste War in Tihosuco, Mexico

By Richard Leventhal, Executive Director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center


Cultural heritage and conflict are linked together in unexpected ways. My own work as an archaeologist with modern Maya communities has helped understand both the connection of heritage, conflict and development as well as the critical importance of these relationships for the future survival of communities. Trying to understand these relationships in a more complete form has inspired me, to launch the Conflict Culture Research Network with my colleagues Brian I. Daniels, Corine Wegener, and Susan Wolfinbarger.

I co-direct a large-scale project about the 19th-Century Caste War, also known as the Maya Social War, in the modern Maya town of Tihosuco with Carlos Chan Espinosa (Museo de la Guerra de Castas), Elias Chi Poot (Ejido de Tihosuo), Clemente Puc Tun (Ejido de Tihosuco) and Demetrio Poot Cahun (La Comunidad de Tihosuco). Located in Quintana Roo, Mexico, this project is sponsored by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

The Caste War began in the dry limestone flats of the Yucatan peninsula in 1847. It became one of the most successful indigenous uprisings in the Americas, leading to the creation of a quasi-independent Maya state that remained semi-autonomous for over 50 years. Demands by the Maya included the abolition of all taxes and the guaranteed right to land.

Although the Maya were divided into factions, by mid-1848, they enjoyed some battlefield successes. Yucatan elites fled to Merida where preparations were made to flee the peninsula, which would have left the region in Maya hands. Unexpectedly, rather than pushing on to Merida, Maya forces retreated and returned to their home villages. Remaining Maya forces were subsequently driven eastward by a renewed Yucatecan military. By year’s end, an estimated 200,000 people had been killed or displaced.

In late 1850, a small group of Maya witnessed a divine visitation in the form of a Talking Cross, which called for Maya independence and religious autonomy. The event united the war weary Maya, who then established political and economic control over eastern Yucatan. Through friendly trading networks with the British, they managed to maintain a degree of autonomy into the 20th century.

Today, the archaeological remains, memory, and heritage of the Caste War form an important sense of identity for the Maya living in Tihosuco and throughout the region. Modern Maya often link their resistance to state authority in the Yucatan, in Chiapas (the Zapatista revolution), and in Guatemala back to the Caste War. Our current study is about both the 19th-century conflict and the post-conflict construction of memory and heritage.

Studying the Caste War reminds us that along with conflict, at some point in the future, a post-conflict process of resolution and reconstruction is inevitable. But within this post-conflict time time period, memories of the war, conflict and even atrocities are a critical part of the memory for the present and for the future. Preservation of heritage sites of memory can more quickly bring about reconciliation and a peaceful movement into the future.

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